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Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation, and Reality
295 pages. Cambridge University Press, 1991 (2005 paperback reprint). £24.99 ($43.00)
ISBN: 0521317908 (paperback)
The recent reprint of Ruth Morse’s 1991 study seems as timely as ever, though perhaps in ways the author could not possibly have anticipated. In the midst of what has been called an emerging post-historicist moment in medieval studies, where critical energy has been focused on thinking of new ways to approach the past outside of traditional historicist methodologies, Morse’s book makes a case for one such approach worth considering. As the title suggests, this study concerns itself primarily with the ways in which medieval conceptions of writing history (broadly conceived) were conditioned by an educational system grounded in the models of rhetoric. ‘Historical writing’, for Morse, was not unlike what we would now call other more ‘creative’ forms of writing, it was just one with a ‘particularly privileged kind of plot’ (p. 11). And this privileging, then, was directly related to its style, ‘the verisimilar’, which in turn required a knowledge of topoi, styles, and conventions learned in rhetorical education. As Morse notes, ‘the past is plotted, and histories are what look like histories’ (p. 87), and thus the practice of historical writing required ‘a knowledge of literature, not a knowledge of the past’ (p. 91). There is something ‘inescapably intertextual’ about this kind of writing, as the author points out (p. 108), as once writers become aware they are repeating or, rather, reworking something that has come before, their interpretation becomes self-conscious because they expect readers to compare their writing to those of others. These ideas lie at the heart of Morse’s argument – that there was a set of conventional representations through which the truth about the past could be expressed, and, that a certain knowledge of rhetorical ways of reading and writing is a basic requirement for understanding these conventions.
This approach seems particularly useful as it provides a way of sidestepping what we now perceive as the general problems with the historicist critique – a schema now considered in the field of medieval studies (as elsewhere) to be generally flawed, but one which scholarship has found difficult to avoid. The central problem with historicism is that it often leads to ‘inventions’ of the Middle Ages which are unapologetically singular, that it leads to the creation of History rather than histories, and these, in turn, (though perhaps inadvertently) have a tendency to culminate in hegemonic renderings of the past. It is now widely acknowledged that the meanings of historical events are plural, and thus that the rendering of such events in historiographical practice must likewise be plural, and an approach which focuses on the rhetorical aspects of medieval objects of study, as Morse’s study does, allows for this plurality, though without completely disavowing ‘history’. Attention to the conventions of rhetoric in a medieval text, be it romance, chronicle, or biography, maintains that these texts were created in an historic moment, but by emphasizing the intertextualness of the object of study, as Morse’s study does, this moment becomes destabilised. The self-consciousness with which ‘medieval writers created their own narrative variations [of history]’ (p. 11) insists that though these writers (and thus the texts they produced) could not escape their historic moments, they were constantly subverting these moments by deliberately fashioning their texts in response to past texts, which were in turn created in their own historic moments. Thus a given text becomes a web of competing temporalities, of conscious engagement with products of various historic moments. And an awareness of this, borne out of an emphasis on rhetorical conventions, potentially facilitates renderings of the past that do not neglect history, but do avoid hegemonic or otherwise singular constructions of that history. Morse’s study provides a model for how this can work, and nearly fifteen years after initial publication, a re-reading may prove worthwhile, as it proposes a potentially fruitful methodological alternative to current trends in constructing the past.
James Wade, U. of Cambridge